Before leading the Service High baseball team to its first Division I Alaska state championship appearance in a decade over the weekend, junior catcher Coen Niclai became just the second player in program history to be named Gatorade Alaska Baseball Player of the Year last week.
“It feels awesome, and I think that my team also boosted me up,” he said. “I think everyone played a good part of it. I don’t say I deserved it but I was working very hard this offseason.”
Some notable recipients of the award from its previous 37 years include 2022 No. 1 overall MLB Draft selection Jackson Holliday, 2019 second overall pick Bobby Witt Jr., nine-time All-Star and former league MVP Clayton Kershaw and Hall of Famer Derek Jeter.
At the time he was selected amid his breakout season, Niclai had batted .326 with two home runs, 27 RBI and a 1.098 OPS through 19 games. He had one of his best performances of the season in the Cook Inlet Conference tournament when he smashed a grand slam over the leftfield fence in a second-round win over West and was also responsible for gunning down five base-runners in the game.
The award not only recognizes a student-athlete for on-field performance, it also takes into account outstanding academic achievement and extraordinary character exemplified on and off the field.
Niclai maintained a weighted GPA of 3.63 GPA and volunteered locally as a part of Service High School’s peer mentorship program as well as by coaching and umpiring youth baseball.
“My parents really drive me to put academics first because I’m a student-athlete and not an athlete-student,” Niclai said. “They do a good job of hounding me on having good academics.”
The only other Service player to win the award was Zach Ferntheil in the 2011-2012 season.
Even opposing coaches took notice of Niclai and respected his well-rounded game.
“Niclai is having a fantastic year and is the most complete player in the state,” said Dimond head coach John Bruce in a statement. “There are (great hitters) this year, but none are as strong on the defensive side of the ball.”
He worked with a personal trainer following his sophomore year and credits it for being able to take his game to the next level.
“He has been really honest with me in helping me level up my game,” Niclai said.
He said the award is a highlight despite a tough end to the season for the Cougars, who fell just short of ending their 22-year state championship drought this past Saturday. Service led South 2-0 entering the bottom of the seventh inning, but the Wolverines rallied late for a walk-off victory in the Division I title game.
“It was a good accomplishment, but it’s still tough,” Niclai said. “We had been through so much as a team from my freshman year until now, and I think it was tough being that close and falling short by just one run.”
He’s already been in contact with a few colleges and hopes that he will be able to build off this accomplishment during the American Legion summer season and set himself up to be able to play at the next level.
“It’s hard when you’re in Alaska and they’re not able to see you as much, but hopefully by the end of this season, I’ll get some more good accolades and have even more coaches talking to me,” Niclai said.